Maurice Wilkins and social responsibility in science: In his own words

In the previous post, I outlined some of the organisations that Maurice Wilkins was involved with that promoted social responsibility in science. In this post, I would like to cover Maurice Wilkins own thoughts on this subject and how they developed and changed in his lifetime.

“The Crisis in Science”

It was during the sixties that Maurice Wilkins entered the public debate regarding the value and implications of science and society. His 1962 Nobel Prize gave him the freedom and authority to “consider the wider role of science in life”. In his autobiography, he states how he found the global political situation made it increasingly difficult to continue his “quiet, steady biological work”.  His awareness of the risks posed by the Cold War and the dangers of weapons of mass destruction is evident in his opening address to the “Social Impact of Modern Biology” conference held at the Friend’s House, London in 1970:
 “The crisis in science today has not only direct bearing on the question of our survival but is of deep significance to our fundamental beliefs and at value judgements

The newspaper, the "Journal American" reporting Maurice Wilkins' Nobel Prize award. Other news that day includes: an escalation in military tension between the US and the USSR over Cuba ( in what was later known as the Cuban Missile Crisis), US spacecraft Ranger 5 lifted off on its lunar mission while also in the news the first law suit over the prescription of thylidomide to pregnant mothers resulting in deformed children was also under way. 

Underlining this crisis was a fundamental change in scientific thought, as Wilkins went on to elaborate:

Yet even [though] scientists continue to work undisturbed, their attitudes to their work have, since the war, significantly changed. Although many scientists regard their work unquestioningly, in general there has been a perceptible change. The main cause is probably the Bomb: scientists no longer have their almost arrogant confidence in the value of science. At the same time non-scientists openly question the value of science.

He, like a significant number of his colleagues on the Manhattan Project, regretted his involvement with the development of the Atomic Bomb. He felt that the bomb was a product of a compartmentalized pure science divorced from any concerns of ethics and responsibility. Wilkins resolved that this division should be removed to make science “better related to man’s wider hopes and needs: dehumanizing aspects of science would be reduced, science would be a force for changing and improving society and social responsibility would be implicit in the nature of science itself

These sentiments regarding the crisis in science were widespread and echoed by other speakers at the “Social Impact of Modern Biology” conference, including the French geneticist, Jacques Monod, and the biologist, Jacob Bronowski. The historian of science Jon Agar, in his 2008 article in the Journal of the British Society for the History of Science, on the change in science in the sixties views the crisis in science as a combination of three pervasive 'waves' in the scientific community: the first 'wave' produced scientific experts and public divergent opinions; the second ‘wave’ was the creation of organisations and movements (such as the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science) that could act as a forum to debate and question scientific practice, and the final wave reflected the pervasive attitude of 'inward inquiry' that questioned the concept of scientific knowledge and its value to society.
Wilkins considered the development of the Bomb and chemical and biological weapons were an abuse of science, but believed that it could be redeemed by shifting its purpose back to the needs of society.

“The man in the white coat knew best”

In the years following the 1970 conference, teaching on the new “Social Impact of the Biosciences” course at King’s College London gave Wilkins an opportunity to develop and share his views.  In a 1998 lecture, Wilkins reflected on the attitudes of the scientific community in 1970:
…In 1970 many scientists saw science as giving certainty and truth; without science we would live largely in ignorance and superstition. Such scientists also had a simple faith that science applied would inevitably give us a better life. Roughly speaking, the scientist in the white coat knew best. That simple faith has considerably decreased. An important factor in this has been change in public attitudes to science; science has been criticised and open anti-science attitudes have increased. People are now less likely to believe ‘the man in a white coat knows best’ (in any case it is rather more likely than before that the scientist is a woman). It is important to realise that modern criticism of science has often arisen from the work of scientists e.g. on problems of pollution, climate change and environmental damage. Without that scientific work we would be barely aware that the problems existed. Also, solving these considerable problems depends considerably on continuing research. Similarly, medical studies have stimulated growth in broader, ‘mind-body  approach to patients rather than concentration on treatment with drugs. Although science has become increasingly part of people’s lives, the people have tended to become more critical of the effects of science in the modern world.“
Wilkins’ attitude to science was influenced by his research in the historical, philosophical and sociological ideas that the course explored. On the development of the concept of pure science, he wrote:

During the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century pure and applied science were not regarded as separable. Francis Bacon (1561-1626) believed the value of science (and in fact its very truth) derived from the beneficial application of science. But in the early 19th century the snobbish demands of educating the upper classes in universities, especially in Germany, required that university science be freed from its links with ‘vulgar; industry (e.g. soap boiling) and made socially respectable as a pure academic discipline like classics or philosophy. Pure scientists became proud of the idea that their science might have no application at all. The idea of pure scientific knowledge became associated with the idea of absolute knowledge which could be separated from the way it was obtained and from the way it might be applied and was therefore value-free, (and based only on unbiased observation and logic).

One important element to Maurice Wilkins’ attitude to social responsibility in science is his belief in the social conditioning of science, which suggests that as science is a human activity it would be conditioned by the social and cultural environment where it is carried out. This is important because “science dominates our whole culture, not just as a result of its direct applications, but because it influences general thinking and attitudes to life”. Therefore, being able to judge the nature and value of scientific knowledge has become ever more desirable. His own understanding bridged both the objective and relative understanding of knowledge:

There are two processes, somewhat opposed, operating in science: there is the essential element of objectivity and rationality recognised by tradition, and without which science could not have built up an enormous set of coherent knowledge. On the other hand scientists’ thinking is always to an extent influenced by cultural forces and prejudice. The ‘logic’ of science can go far in ruling out inappropriate ways of thinking, thus enabling science to lead us to a partial view of the truth. The debate about social conditioning of science is about the relative importance of the objective rationality of science and the subjective conditioning of thought. This will vary with the situation.”

Wilkins’ key example of social conditioning of science was the work of the Soviet biologist Trofim Lysenko (1898-1976), whose own genetic theories were promoted in the USSR from 1928 to 1964 instead of the universally accepted Mendelian genetics. Lysenkoism was encouraged as it politically and philosophically was in keeping with Stalinist Russia. For Wilkins, it was the suppression of dissent and the central dogmatism that was the most corrosive aspect of the Lysenko affair. Yet the same charge he suggests (but not in such extreme fashion) can be made in those in the contemporary scientific world:

"while we condemn this we should recognise somewhat similar, thought not so extreme, dogmatism when some molecular biologist pronounces that human beings are ‘nothing but’ molecular machinery or when the psychologists take it for granted that IQ gives us a measure of intelligence on which we can base educational policy. Scientific knowledge need not be unavoidable truth. We should respect it but at the same time recognise its limitations, we should not jump to conclusions about its wider significance and we need to be very cautious in drawing parallels between animals and humans.

To conclude…

“There can be no complete certainties in science but there can be a continuing process of enquiry and exploration"

Maurice Wilkins and social responsibility in science

In previous posts, I have concentrated on Wilkins' scientific career and in particular to his work on DNA and the double helix. However, in this post I would like to explore the "social responsibility" aspect of the project. This phrase has become associated with Maurice Wilkins due to his links to the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science (BSSRS) and the "Social Impact of the Biosciences" course at King's College London. Yet they also nicely summarise Wilkins' own attitude to the role of science in society and the need for a broader understanding of science and awareness of its implications. The following post will explore this general theme.
 Cambridge and the Second World War

While Maurice Wilkins was an undergraduate at St John's College, Cambridge, he became a member of the Cambridge Scientists' Anti-War Group. The group, led by the eminent x-ray crystallographer John Desmond Bernal, researched the protection of British civilians in the likely event of aerial bombardment in any forthcoming war. They examined the possibility of poison gas attacks and incendiary bomb damage. Wilkins investigated whether a single incendiary bomb could set fire to the top of a building, burn through, and destroy an entire building, burning through many floors (as seen in the photograph on the right). He ignited an incendiary bomb on a platform of conventional floorboards. Whilst the bomb easily ignited and caused much violent flashing and burning, it only caused only caused minimal damage since the fire burned up and not down. The results disappointed the group, who believed the experiments could have been a powerful propaganda tool exposing the evil of German air attacks in Republican Spain and the resultant devastation of the town of Guernica. Yet the results of the experiments played out in real life: as Wilkins saw the same effect during heavy bombing in Birmingham several years later:

"In the street where I live the roof of the doctor's house was burning, and the hoses drenching the outside of the roof did not seem effective. I went inside and saw the ceiling under the burning roof was intact, and I broke a hole in it to put a jet of water directly into the roof space. But when I had finished making the hole I could see through it that the fire had already been put out. I felt embarrassed that I had damaged the doctor's ceiling..." 

It was his move to study luminescence at Birmingham University in the Physics department under Mark Oliphant that would lead Wilkins to work on the development of radar and later the atomic bomb at Berkeley, California. His attitude to the bomb at the time was broadly supportive since its development was seen as crucial against continued Nazi aggression. Yet after the bomb's use in Hiroshima and Nagasaki he experienced growing unease about the consequences of such a weapon of mass destruction and realised that he wanted no further part in it. It was after the war whilst working at St Andrews University that, unbeknownst to him, he would catch the attention of MI5 due his subversive attitude towards the atom bomb. Wilkins was a keen supporter of sharing nuclear secrets for the improvement of international relations with the USSR. These views reported to MI5 and eventually led to his official monitoring (see previous post for details: ).

1960s and Political Activism


During the fifties and early sixties, he concentrated on his research on the structure of DNA but did not abandon his interest in the broader responsibilities of the scientist. During his Lasker Award speech in 1960, he emphasised that the importance of the double helix should be considered not only in terms of scientific knowledge but also in relation to the human benefit that may be created by applications of that knowledge. The winding down of the DNA work at King's and the award of the Nobel Prize gave him the freedom to return to the problems that captivated him as an undergraduate at Cambridge: science and its relation to society. In 1968, Wilkins became a prominent member of the public campaign to get the government biological research laboratory at Porton Down declassified and was one of the eight Nobel Prize winning scientists who wrote to the Prime Minster , Harold Wilson demanding that the work should be made public. It was through this network of scientists and other academics that Wilkins got involved in the group that became known as the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science (BSSRS) and was its President from 1969 to 1991. The society's importance and standing in the debate on science and values shown by the list of initial members as shown on the left.

Bogside Artists' mural of a boy running from CS gas in Derry
The aims of the Society were to stimulate an awareness of the social significance of science and the corresponding social responsibilities both individually and collectively, and to draw public attention to the implications and consequence of scientific development. BSSRS held its inaugural meeting in April 1969, attended by three hundred delegates and soon had a national body of a thousand members. The Society became a vocal advocate against the use of chemical and biological weapons in particular the use of CS gas. BSSRS led its own research into the gas' toxicity and organised its own team of doctors and social scientists to visit Londonderry, where the British Army had used the gas extensively. The Society gave evidence of the potential hazards to the government enquiry, the Himsworth Committee on the toxicity of CS Gas in 1969. BSSRS also launched pioneering projects on the effects of pollution such as the hazards associated with dumping toxic waste off the Cumberland Coast by the Atomic Energy Authority.

The largest event that BSSRS organised was an international conference on the "Social Impact of Modern Biology" held in London on November 1970. Over three days an average of seven hundred people per day gathered at the meeting that included talks from Maurice Wilkins, James Watson, Jacques Monod, Jacob Bronowski, David Bohm and Stephen and Hilary Rose. The conference acted as a forum to discuss the implications of scientific research with fellow scientists and the public and included such controversial subjects as "test tube babies" and questioning scientific objectivity. As the following letter from Maurice Wilkins to one of the participants, Professor Richard Doll makes clear the conference was largely a success. Many young scientists said that "it made them think" and it led to a successful book of the discussions of the conference, that has recently been republished ("The Social Impact of Modern Biology" edited by Watson Fuller). What typified the meeting was the discussion and the occasional clash (hence the mentioned abuse) between the "New Left" young radical scientists and the older more established scientists.

BSSRS never again achieved the same level of global coverage, but continued to have a presence especially through the work of local groups and its publication, Science for People.  The 1970 conference also led to the development of the "Social Impact of the Biosciences" course at King's College London that still runs to this day. Maurice Wilkins summed up its overall impact in his autobiography, "The Third Man of the Double Helix" (2003):  

[BSSRS] helped scientists to see there was no sharp distinction between pure and applied science, and that it paved the way for a broader, interdisciplinary approach to the problems of science and society".

 A few examples of the elaborate cover art and issues raised by Science for People